The West Coast Road was opened in 1995 and is in excellent condition with good signposting and many viewpoints. It is a very curvy, but spectacular, drive down to Soufrière.Take the transinsular highway out of Castries and instead of branching left at Cul de Sac bay carry straight on. The road quickly rises to La Croix Maingot where you get good views of the Roseau banana plantation.
On reaching the Roseau valley, one of the main banana growing areas, take the signposted road to Marigot Bay (plenty of ‘guides’ waiting to pounce). A good place to stop for a drink, the Marigot Bay Resort dominates both sides of the valley. In between is a beautiful inlet which is a natural harbour and provided the setting for Dr Doolittle. It supports a large marina and not surprisingly a large number of yachts in transit berth here to restock with supplies from the supermarket and chandler. You will notice a small strip of land jutting out into the bay. This has a small beach (not particularly good for swimming) and can be reached by the gingerbread express (a small water taxi, EC$2 return, refundable at Doolittle’s if you eat or drink there) either from the hotel or the customs post. It is a good place for arranging watersports and the staff of the resort are most helpful. There is a police station and immigration post here. High above the bay are JJ’s and Albert’s bars, popular alternatives to Gros Islet on Friday nights. You can also eat well at JJ’s, a much cheaper alternative to the expensive restaurants at Marigot Bay.
At the bottom of the Roseau Valley, the road to Vanard and Millet branches off to the left (signposted). Millet is high up in the mountains and offers a good view of the rainforest. The road ends there. An interesting detour is Jacmel (take first right hand turn off Vanard road). If you take the first left turn in the village you reach the church, the altarpiece of which was painted by Dunstan St Omer (see Culture). Father Cecil Goodman can be asked to open the church if it is not already open. Donations welcome to maintain the church.
The main road continues to Soufrière and passes through the fishing villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries (no facilities). South of Anse La Raye, a well-restored sugar mill, La Sikwi, can be visited, EC$5 or EC$15 with guide. It is near the river on the way to a waterfall, in a garden containing many regional crop species. Boa constrictor come here to be fed and with luck you will see one. The bar and restaurant open on demand. A narrow, steep, bad road branches off to the right just before Canaries and leads to a restaurant run by Chef Harry from the Green Parrot (no regular service, used for private functions). Half way along this road, before it gets really steep, you can park and climb down the hill towards Canaries. There is a man-made cave and oven used by escaped slaves. Difficult to find (as intended), you need a knowledgeable local to show you where it is. There are also many waterfalls in the vacinity of Canaries, some of which are visited by organized tours. If you go independently you need a four-wheel drive and a guide. The closest is right at the end of the road into the rainforest, others are 30 minutes to two and a half hours walk away. It is safe to swim. South of Canaries is Anse La Liberté (pronounced La Betty). It can be reached by water taxi from Canaries, EC$2, or on foot from Belvedere along a trail (10 minutes down, 15 minutes up) which will become a nature trail. There are many brigand holes in the area.
Soufrière (pop: 9,000) was severely damaged in Nov 1999 by Hurricane Lenny, which brought 20-ft waves & destroyed about 70 houses & infrastructure. After Canaries the road goes inland and skirts Mount Tabac (2,224 ft) before descending into Soufrière. This is the most picturesque and interesting part of the island, with marvellous old wooden buildings at the foot of the spectacular Pitons, surrounded by thick vegetation and towering rock formations looming out of the sea. Note that Petit Piton is dangerous to climb (several people have fallen off in recent years) and also that it is restricted Crown Lands. This does not stop local guides offering to show visitors up, though, for about EC$80. Because of its location, the town is a must for tourists although it is not geared for people wanting to stay there and nobody seems bothered about visitors. It can help to have a hotel guide or dayboat skipper with you. In any event it is not cheap, expect to be charged for everything. Indeed, it is essential if you have no transport of your own and want to see the volcano and the Pitons, as there are no buses back to Castries after midday unless you make a roundabout journey via Vieux Fort. To do this, leave Castries at 0800, the ride can take two hours. After visiting Soufrière, wait at the corner opposite the church and ask as many people as possible if they know of anyone going to Vieux Fort; you will get a lift before you get a bus. It is important to get off at Vieux Fort ‘crossroads’, where there are many buses returning to Castries by another route, one and a quarter hours. Buses to Castries leave from the market area. If you arrive by boat head for the north end of the bay, you will find plenty of help to tie up your yacht (EC$5) and taxis will appear from nowhere. It is a much cheaper alternative to tying up at the jetty. Organized tours are available from the hotels further north, by sea or road, from around US$65-80 including lunch, drinks, transfers and a trip to Soufrière, Diamond Gardens and the Sulphur Springs.
Soufrière is a charming old West Indian town dating back to 1713 when Louis XIV of France granted the lands around Soufrière to the Devaux family. The estate subsequently produced cotton, tobacco, coffee and cocoa. During the French Revolution, the guillotine was raised in the square by the Brigands but the Devaux family were protected by loyal slaves and escaped. It is situated on a very picturesque bay totally dominated by the Pitons. The water here is extremely deep and reaches 200 ft only a few yards from the shore, which is why boats moor close in. To reach Anse Chastanet from here take the rough track at the north end of the beach (past the yacht club) about one mile. This is an absolute must if you enjoy snorkelling (the south end near the jetty is superb but keep within the roped off area, the north end is also good with some rocks to explore, but avoid the middle where boats come in). The hotel has a good and inexpensive restaurant (although if you are on a budget you may prefer to take a picnic) and the dive shop is extremely helpful, they will hire out equipment by the hour. The Unicorn, Endless Summer and day boats stop here for snorkelling and a swim in the afternoon on their return to Castries.
Most visitors come to the town to see the Diamond Gardens and Waterfall and the Sulphur Springs. There are no road signs in Soufrière and locating these two places can be difficult (or expensive if forced to ask). From the square take the road east past the church (Sir Arthur Lewis Street) and look for a right hand turning to reach the Diamond Gardens. These were developed in 1784 after Baron de Laborie sent samples taken from sulphur springs near the Diamond River to Paris for analysis. They found minerals present which were equivalent to those found in the spa town of Aix-la-Chapelle and were said to be effective against rheumatism and other complaints. The French King ordered baths to be built. Despite being destroyed in the French Revolution, they were eventually rebuilt and can be used by members of the public for about EC$6.50. The gardens are well maintained and many native plants can be seen. T4524759. EC$6 (children EC$3), daily 1000-1700. Only official guides are allowed in, do not accept offers from those at the gates. All the carparks are free, no matter what some people may tell you.
To get to the Sulphur Springs take the Vieux Fort road between wooden houses about half way along the south side of Soufrière square. Follow the road for about two miles (you can stop off on the way to visit the Morne Coubaril Estate, an open-air farm museum, guided tour EC$15, working family plantation, processes cocoa, copra, cassava, T4597340) and you will see a sign on the left. You will also be able to smell the springs. Originally a huge volcano about 5 km in diameter, it collapsed some 40,000 years ago leaving the west part of the rim empty (where you drive in). The sign welcomes you to the world’s only drive-in volcano, although actually you have to stop at a car park. The sulphur spring is the only one still active, although there are seven cones within the old crater as well as the pitons which are thought to be volcanic plugs. Tradition has it that the Arawak deity Yokahu slept here and it was therefore the site of human sacrifices. The Caribs were less superstitious but still named it Qualibou, the place of death. There is a small village of about 40 inhabitants located inside the rim of the volcano. Water is heated to 180°F and in some springs to 275°F. It quickly cools to about 87°F below the bridge at the entrance. There has been much geothermal research here since 1974. From the main viewing platform, you can see over a moonscape of bubbling, mineral rich, grey mud. It is extremely dangerous to stray onto the grey area. The most famous ‘crater’ was formed a few years ago when a local person fell into a mud pocket. He received third degree burns. EC$3, every day 0900-1700. There are good, informative guides (apparently compulsory) on the site but you must be prepared to walk over uneven ground. Allow approximately 30 mins.
In the valley between Petit Piton and Gros Piton, a luxury all-inclusive resort, Jalousie Plantation, has been built despite complaints from ecological groups and evidence from archaeologists that it is located on a major Amerindian site. An important burial ground is believed to be under the tennis courts and there have been many finds of petroglyphs and pottery. Take the turning opposite the Morne Coubaril Estate on the unsigned concrete road. Half way along the drive to Jalousie you will see a little sign to a small, warm waterfall on your left. A Rastaman will collect about US$2 for access. You can relax in the warm waters after the hassle of visiting Soufrière.
South of Soufrière, near Union Vale estate, is the new two-hour Gros Piton trail. The village of Fond Gens Libre is at the base of the mountain, accessible by jeep or high-clearance car although you will have to ford a couple of streams. Enquire at Forestry, T4502231. Call Charmaine Desir, Fond Gens Libre Tour Guides Association, T4593833, to arrange a guide. The trip up and back is about six hours. A guide costs about EC$20, but if you have your own transport you can do it on your own. It is strenuous, so you must be in good physical condition. It should not be attempted in wet weather.
The road from Soufrière to Vieux Fort takes about 40 minutes by car. The branch of the road through Fond St Jacques (another church painted by Dunstan St Omer) runs through lush rain forest and a track takes you to the west end of the rain forest trail. In a few miles the road rapidly descends from Victoria Junction (1,200 ft) to the coastal plain at Choiseul. Choiseul is a quaint old West Indian village, there is a fish market and church on the beach. Caraibe Point is the last place on St Lucia where Caribs still survive, a small community of potters living in simple thatched houses. North of Choiseul is a petroglyph, visible from the road, although you must park and then walk a little way. Outlined in white, under a protective roof, it is just down the cliff toward the sea. On the south side of Choiseul is the Art and Craft development centre teaching skills in bamboo handicrafts and you can buy pottery and carvings, as well as baskets. Bigger pieces of furniture are made from mahogany in the workshops at the back of the complex. The centre has an outlet in the market in Castries. There is a snack bar.
Southeast of Choiseul, there are Arawak petroglyphs on rocks in the Balenbouche River. You will probably need somebody to show you the way from Balenbouche or Saltibus. Balenbouche Estate is an old sugar plantation where you can stay in the estate home or in a cottage, good local food, contact Uta Lawaetz, T4551244. Stonefield Estate also has very fine petroglyphs, but you will need to ask if someone will show you them in the bush. This is a working cocoa plantation, also with luxurious accommodation, T4530777. The village of Labourie also has accommodation available if you ask around. It is a very picturesque and friendly spot.